6 posts categorized "Communication"

October 29, 2015

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy, and why has Sympathy got such a bad name?

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By John Ford

Have you ever wondered about the difference between empathy and sympathy?

And if you have, why sympathy has got such a bad name?

I addressed these very questions in the recent pilot of my online course that focused on Challenging Workplace Relationships, but was prompted to write this after watching a short online video  narrated by Dr. Brené Brown.

In the video Dr Brown says that empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection. To empathize, she says, we must 'internalize the feelings of another'.

In the examples she gives she suggests that we sympathize when we avoid acknowledging others difficult feelings and also when we minimize the experience of another, such as when we ‘silver-line’ with expressions like, “at least you have a job,” after hearing that the person was demoted.

I agree that these last two practices (avoidance and minimizing) are not empathetic, but I am not sure that they are what sympathy is about. Or indeed the real reasons for sympathy’s bad name.

As is often the case, words have numerous meanings. Sympathy’s Latin roots point to ‘similar feelings’ (sympathia and pathos).

However, the primary sense in most modern dictionaries suggest that sympathy means “pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortune.”

Sympathy as pity is dis-empowering and fuels disconnection. Comments like “I don’t want your sympathy” confirm this.

We want to be allowed to feel our feelings, rather than be rescued by the sympathizer who can never actually feel for us!

I agree that this sense is unfortunate and I suspect a reason for sympathy’s bad name.

But sympathy can also refer to the original Latin meaning and our capacity to recognize a common feeling. We sense that the other person may be feeling something similar to what we have previously experienced and sympathize.
As the listener, if we express our sympathy we may say “I was also ‘gutted’ when my team lost!”

The apparent danger is that unless we are careful we shift the focus away from the other. Now it’s about me and my team!

That’s another reason for its bad name.

So what then is empathy, and how is it different?

Empathy is our capacity to sense and understand what another is feeling from their – nor our – point of view.

This to me is vital. The focus is on them and how they make sense of their feelings.

So while I listen to my English friend bemoan their loss in the rugby world cup, I can sympathize as suggested above as I know what it feels like to lose.

But I can also empathize.

And when I do the shift is apparent. “I imagine you were gutted when your team lost! Especially as hosts. Must really hurt!”

As is suggested by Paul Bellet and Michael Maloney, our perspective becomes superfluous, certainly secondary to that of the speaker:

“Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes.”

At best my frame of reference and knowledge of rugby can help me to understand what my friend is feeling (sympathy), but empathy lies in my ultimate ability to demonstrate to my friend that I understand him and his woes.

Empathy builds connection, and is based on authentic attention to the other.

Sympathy can move us toward, but is not the same as empathy.

In the same way that avoidance and minimization are neither sympathetic nor empathetic.

Much ado about nothing?

Not so sure. Words matter.

Sympathy has its place, but there are dangers.

Which is why for life’s challenges,

I prefer empathy!

August 10, 2015

Are you safe from Mixed Messages?

Yes_no

I recently received feedback on a video I had created to promote my online course that focuses on the skills to handle Challenging Workplace Relationships.

I had posted the video on my personal Facebook page and asked my friends for some honest feedback! 

Let’s just say, that wasn’t easy! 

But I did it - anyway. 

And what I heard, from a number of kind friends, was that there was a disconnect between the use of my hands and my voice! 

Also - that I was looking down at my audience. Rather than being on the level! 

I can easily change the angle of the camera. But what about the disconnect? How best do I address that?

Very simply, by ensuring congruency between my words, the tone of my voice and my body language.

According to Albert Mehrabian, a communication researcher from UCLA, when we are conveying our feelings or attitudes and there is any incongruency between what is being said, the tone of the voice and the body language, we place the least importance on the words used. 

When there is an incongruency, the words have a value of 7%, the tone 38% and the body language 55%. 

If someone shouts “I’m not angry” and pounds the desk while glaring, we discount the words. We give primacy to the message of the body. 

Sadly, this statistic has been misrepresented to mean that in all communication words only constitute 7% of the message! 

I was at a workshop recently where the presenter said exactly that. That’s more like an incorrect message! 

This short video called Busting the Mehrabian Myth that makes it crystal clear what the research really says. 

To peace at work with peace of mind!

July 17, 2015

Why are some - but not all - relationships challenging?

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"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." 
Carl Jung

When relationships challenge us, it is stressful. 

It does get dramatic. 

We do lose our sanity. 

And we do wonder about the meaning of it all.

Physically we experience the sensations of tension, numbness, headaches, stomach ache, pain, stress, fatigue and illness. 

Emotionally our landscape includes drama, manipulation and conflict. Negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, contempt, confusion, disgust, depression, fear, jealousy, worry and sadness are common. 

Mentally things aren’t better. We experience sense making challenges and misunderstandings. The temptation to narrate a right-wrong victim story, be judgmental and have punitive thoughts predominates. 

And we may even lose the plot, questioning life's ultimate meaning and purpose. 

But that is really just HOW relationships are challenging.

What about the WHY! 

Why are relationships challenging?

First, a relationship is challenging because of one, or a combination of three things: YOU, the OTHER and the CONTEXT!

Second, you and the other, as humans, have limitations that can create challenges.

For one, we are far more emotional than we really care to admit. Another is that our memories are not that reliable and we remember things differently without deceptive intentions. For those that try to do too much at the same time, it is now clear that neither woman nor men can really multitask. And if that’s not enough- the placebo affect confirms just how often expectation creates our reality! There is a reason we talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!

Third, most of us lack awareness of our own challenging behaviors or attitudes. Without awareness change is unlikely and even when we are aware, we are oftennot motivated to change.

For those that are aware and are motivated, there may be capacity challenges that make it impossible.

But if we or the other can overcome these obstacles, then the focus of the challenge turns to skills. Specifically, the development of emotionally resonant relationship management skills. 

To navigate the reality of your challenges you need to be able to listen with empathy, express yourself clearly, give and receive feedback openly without defensiveness, assert collaboratively (and sometimes say NO), resolve differences fairly and at times to forgive authentically.

And what this confirms is that there is a lot that you can do yourself first, before you consider the other or indeed the context.

Jung reminds us our challenges can become our opportunities for insight, change and growth.

As we understand ourselves better, we understand others better too. 

If you are tired of being stuck in relationships that are stressful, dramatic, confusing and depressing and are interested in transforming your challenges into opportunities please get on the wait list for the next time  the six week online course Challenging Workplace Relationships runs. 

July 03, 2015

What exactly is a challenging relationship?

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“Sometimes people behave badly on purpose, but often we just lose touch with who we are.” Sharon Salzberg

The question of how best to deal with relationship challenges in our life is not new!

And as Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, notes; ‘bad behavior’ can be as a result of intentional malice but most often is not.

When we perceive ourselves to be on the receiving end of what we label as ‘bad’ or challenging behavior, we are often judgmental of both the behavior and the motive (intent) of the other.

It is not uncommon for there to be blame.

And it is also not uncommon for us to also lose touch with who we are.

Just as much as the other who acted ‘badly’ may have lost touch with themselves.

That seems to be the difficulty. That as much as we want to control our external world to secure inner peace we find that there is much going on within us that is also part of the challenging mix!

So then, what exactly is a challenging relationship?

Very simply, a challenging relationship is one that you have concluded is challenging!

In other words the test is subjective and very personal.

It means that your difficult person may be liked by many. You may or may not be the only one bothered. And, you may be shocked to find that others – using this same subjective test - find you challenging at times!

This subjective approach is intentional. It avoids ‘typing’ and excessive labeling in which the identification of qualities justify a diagnosis or ‘type’.

See, for example, the book “How People Tick: A Guide to Over 50 Types of Difficult People and How to Handle Them” by Mike Leibling. How anyone can remember all the 50 different types of difficult people or indeed what to do for each is beyond me.

At the end of the day, you will know if you are at peace or not. And if your perception is that the relationship is in any way;

  • Threatening not safe
  • Negative not positive
  • Difficult not easy
  • Defensive not open
  • Hostile not friendly
  • Confusing not clear
  • Draining not energizing
  • Toxic not healthy

Then you have a challenging relationship!

Now, I hasten to add that this conclusion does not entitle you to blame or do any of the other things that will make the situation worse.

But at least you won’t get stuck arguing about whether the behavior or attitude meets the definition of challenging behavior. Or which type it is! Or what to do assuming you have the correct type!

There are 10 things that I have identified that are guaranteed to make things worse. One is labelling and typing.

Another is blame!

When things turn out differently to what we hoped and we are disappointed and even angry because our needs are not being met, we often blame the proverbial other for what went wrong.

The benefit is that we may get sympathy and care. Sometimes shared outrage! And as long as the focus of blame is more external on the other or the environment, we can avoid our own feelings of pain and responsibility. Remember, our part in the challenging mix!

When we blame we make a judgment and hold the other person responsible for a situation from the past based on our perception and interpretation of the facts. As the authors of Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, Heen) say, “blame is about judging and looking backwards.”

Blame elicits defensiveness. It reduces the likelihood of learning about what is really causing the difficulty or from doing anything helpful about it.

A blame conversation is not the only conversation humans can have when things go wrong. I will always be grateful to Stone, Patton and Heen who revealed a worthy process alternative: a contribution conversation.

“A contribution conversation is about understanding and looks forward.”

Instead of asking whose fault is it, we openly ask how we each contributed to the situation in question:

What is my contribution to the situation?

What did we each do?

What can we learn?

Instead of defensiveness and concealment that prevents learning when we take the blame route, we discover through our candid revealing that we can learn from our individual and collective mistakes.

Here’s how the two approaches look side to side. Where the blame cycle grows and leads to more of the same challenge, the contribution conversation is balancing and reduces the problem.

Blame

We all experience challenging relationships and as the wise Sharon Salzberg cautions - most of the time it is from good folk, like you and me, losing touch with who we really are.

How positive do we need to be in our relationships?

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According to evidence based psychologist, John Gottman, “the ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict in stable relationships is 5:1; in couples headed for divorce, it is 0.8:1!” 

As Gottman points out, this does not require that we declare war on negative emotions.

All emotions have value when we view them as sources of decision making information to navigate life. In fact, without them, we would be rudderless! 

Take anger, as an example of a negative emotion. 

Anger arises when someone or something is interfering with the attainment of our actual or expected needs. There is a sense of being powerless about the situation. It burns a lot of energy and is ultimately tiring. There is a danger of impulsive and premature decisions.

Importantly, emotions are not the same as the behavior that follows. Slamming the door, shouting and acting out is the behavior. Not the emotion! 

These graphics give us a window into what is occurring. In the healthy couple on the left we see that the trend is generally upward despite moments of rupture and contraction. On the right, the trend reflects the downward spiral of poorly managed conflict.
 
GottmanPositiveRatio
 
One practical application of this insight (where I have had great success) is with email. As research by Kristin Byron, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, shows, regardless of the sender’s intention, recipients interpret the impact of emails to be:

• Neutral when they are positive
• Negative when they are neutral

I was coaching a client recently. He told me that he had just received an email from his boss, and needed to respond. His concern about what he was going to say was preventing him from focusing, so I asked if he’d like to draft his reply during our session. 

He said yes, and I gave him a moment to write something out. We then took a look together and I asked him to indicate – sentence by sentence – whether his boss would perceive the statement as positive, negative or neutral. His score: 5 negative, 2 neutral and 2 positive sentences!

As a result of this review, his changes and additions, we were able to significantly shift the tone and tenor of the email from negative to positive. We removed ‘unnecessary story’, negative leaks, and outright threats while also adding more positive statements. 

We didn’t get to the gold standard of 5:1 and his score after our process was 3 negative, 4 neutral and 4 positive sentences. Still way better!

He sent it, and we got back to focus on our session goals. And here is the best part: before the session ended he had received a positive reply back from his boss. The relief was palpable.

And now he was struggling to focus because he was so happy!

Challenging relationship are a reality. We all have them. And there are things that we can do to change the quality of our experience as we navigate our challenging relationships.

So the next time you have to send out an important email, take a moment to review each sentence and determine your score. See what you can do to clean up your message and give yourself the best chance of being heard.

March 18, 2015

Kind AND Direct

By Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D.
info@mariasimpson.com
www.mariasimpson.com
© 2014 Maria Simpson




There’s an old saying that if you aren’t getting the answers you want, then ask different questions. As managers or coaches we sometimes want to provide answers and solve problems before we have asked enough of the right questions to get important information and identify real problems, so we provide answers to the wrong questions and solutions to the wrong problems. No the most efficient or effective process.
 
Questions generally fall into one of three categories -- curious, clarifying and challenging – and the first two will get the most important information. The curious question asks for new information and may not have any agenda in mind at all. I ask curious questions when I’m interviewing people. The clarifying question makes the current information clearer and assures that all parties understand information in the same way. Otherwise, a conflict will arise and someone finally has to say, “Oh, that’s what you meant. I didn’t get that at all” before it can be resolved. The challenging question is just what it describes—a challenge to what you have said or to you as a person. It challenges not only fact but integrity and honesty. It can feel as if the person is deliberately trying to trick you into saying something you don't mean and can cause immense stress.
 
Sometimes the difficulty for us is not in the question itself but in how to ask it, what words to use, especially if we are angry, frustrated, under pressure, or afraid of the answer.
 
When I have that difficulty I call my good friend and mediator par excellence L. Therese White who always finds the best way to say the most difficult things using her principle of “kind and direct.” (www.thereswhite.com) Therese believes that there is just no reason to be unkind when saying difficult things unless your goal is to hurt someone. In fact, she suggests, “maybe the most difficult things need the most kindness to say.”

To identify ways to be helpful as a coach or manager ask clarifying questions about the person’s feelings about the job, Therese suggests:

  • The job description/procedures manual outlines what needs to be done. Are you willing to do that work?
  • What can I do to help you prepare for the next meeting/presentation?

Therese tries to find common ground by asking curious questions that will generate new information, such as:

  • Is there something about that person that you admire or value?
  • Would you be willing to say that to that person?
  • What is going on in the department that you both agree on?
  • What do you need from the other person that you don’t think you are getting now?

That last question can be tricky, so the phrase is “don’t think you are getting” instead of “are not getting.” Sometimes the person is actually getting the help or support needed but is thinking so negatively that the help or support can’t be recognized. Helping the person understand that at least some of that support is actually present can change a perspective and expand the conversation. 
  
Notice that challenging questions, questions that demand an answer or that make the person feel under attack and defensive, are avoided. For example, “Are you willing to do that work?” could just as easily have been stated, “Why aren’t you willing to do that work?” But that would be so much less effective. “Why aren’t you willing?” is an accusation made before the person has even expressed unwillingness. “Are you willing?” gives the person room to say no, and the coach room to ask what might be going on that creates that reluctance. The conversation is extended instead of cut short.
 
When people feel challenged they get defensive, they withdraw from the process and shut down, or they get argumentative and the dispute escalates. Using harsh language, language that implies something that isn’t true or hasn’t been discussed yet, is the quickest way to create an impasse instead of an open door.
 
Sometimes we have to ask the questions of ourselves. When I was complaining about a student’s very badly written paper to Ken Cloke, a wonderful mediator and mentor to both Therese and me, he asked me if there was anything good I could say about the second paper. “Well, I guess there are fewer technical errors than in the first one.” He said that was wonderful and asked me to build on what had improved, however small that was, to find a way to provide necessary feedback without condemning the student. Years later when a manager complained bitterly about a staff member, I asked him a version the same question. “That’s pretty harsh. Isn’t there anything good that can be said for this person?” He thought a minute and then said, “No.” I’d met the staff member and knew that couldn’t be true so I pressed him to think a bit harder. He finally said that she had been with the firm a long time and was loyal, a trait he valued, so there was something good to be said after all. It was a struggle for that manager to find a good quality, but finding it changed his perspective just enough so that he could be less harsh with the staff member.
 
Therese mentioned a conversation she had during a recent mediation where she explored the idea of kind and direct. “It was refreshing to see people get it and realize how everyone benefits when the choice is made to be ‘kind and direct’ instead of to be ‘kind ordirect.’” Surely we can make that choice much more often.

Have an absolutely wonderful, peaceful week. And be kind.

Maria

Maria Simpson, Ph.D.
info@mariasimpson.com
www.mariasimpson.com
© 2014 Maria Simpson